Mistakes pile up that could not be overcome.
I concluded my Week 2 post by saying that the 49ers cannot become complacent and have to be ready for any team to put up a good fight at any time.
Before that, I started my preseason post by saying that the team now has a target on the back of their uniforms, and that the other 31 clubs will be gunning to get a victory against San Francisco someway, somehow.
The Minnesota Vikings were the first to do so this season, handing the 49ers a 24-13 loss at the Mall of America Field in Minneapolis.
The Art of Losing
Although the loss was discouraging after two solid victories over playoff teams, it is not time to press the panic button. If this league has shown us anything, it is that perfect seasons are near impossible, and that on any day, any team can show up and win – especially when fueled by a home crowd and an underdog label. It has also shown us that losing is the most effective way to discover what parts of your game need work; step one of solving any problem is recognizing that it is, in fact, a problem.
In recent history, the New York Giants are a prime example of peaking at the right time. In 2011 they squeaked into the playoffs with a 9-7 record and upset the New England Patriots in the 2012 SuperBowl. Four years earlier, the 10-6 Giants topped the 16-0 Patriots again, dashing New England’s hopes of the entire perfect season. All sports are simple in the sense that whoever shows up and plays better than the other team that day, wins.
Everyone Makes Mistakes. No, Really – Everyone Did.
Mistakes happen all the time, but frustrating losses are the result of multiple, if not all, parts of the team committing mistakes within the same four quarters. Alex Smith (24/35, 204 yards, TD, INT) was not on. His passes were long and high, he threw his first pick in 250 consecutive passes, and was sacked three times. Christian Ponder (21/35, 198 yards, 2 TD) impressed as he threw for similar yardage as Smith, but was able to connect with Kevin Rudolph twice in the end zone, run 23 yards in for a TD himself, and avoid any sacks and turnovers.
The 49ers running game fueled their victory over Detroit last week, but when Frank Gore only has 12 carries for 63 yards on a day that Alex Smith is struggling, the offense is much easier to defend. Smith was the only other contributor on the ground running for 26 yards himself. Kendall Hunter and Kyle Williams were impressive on the returns, but fumbles and failed drives kept crucial points off the board. The 49ers secondary kept Adrian Peterson out of the end zone and under 100 yards, but he still contributed 86 yards to Minnesota’s 146 total rushing yards. The Vikings balanced and consistent offense kept them on top in a comfortable lead the whole game, and the 49ers could not muster up more than one drive that resulted in a touchdown. David Akers only made two of his three field goal attempts, both from 29 yards, as his 43 yard attempt was blocked by Letroy Guion.
The infamous and terrorizing defense didn’t taunt and bully. Donte Whitner dropped what would have been an easy pick 6. No sacks, no interceptions. Last season’s streak of no rushing TDs until week 16 won’t be repeated this season after Ponder’s 23 yard run down the middle. The 49ers haven’t allowed that many rushing yards (146) in almost two years.
Yellow flags were also problematic – the Vikings earned four first downs from San Francisco penalties, two of which were unnecessary roughness calls that led to Rudolph’s second TD catch that put the game out of reach.
Greg Roman will have a busy week trying to fix the ever-troubled red zone attack. The Vikings converted on both of their red zone opportunities while the 49ers were stopped 2 out of 3 attempts. In the long run, touchdowns will win games – field goals won’t be good enough. To solidify their status as an elite team, they have to convert on 4th and short heading towards the end zone, and in the red zone they have to get Gore across the line or an open, sticky-handed target for Smith to throw to.
Mistakes, like drinking alcohol, can be fine in moderation. But when mistakes add up to the equivalent of a college fraternity pledge during initiation, you lose games (and brain cells).
Power shift in NFC West
The Arizona Cardinals dominated at home against Philadelphia to improve to 3-0 on the season. Their week 2 defeat over New England on the road raised some eyebrows, but the Kolb-Fitzgerald tandem is the latest division threat that will keep the 49ers on their toes. I’ll only devote one sentence to the controversial Seattle win over Green Bay, but the Seahawks are now 2-1. Moving on.
The 49ers, now 2-1, will train in Youngstown, Ohio until traveling to play the Jets next Sunday. The Jets are coming off of an exciting come-from-behind, overtime victory at Miami and will use that momentum and their home crowd to try to hand the 49ers their second loss of the season. Darrelle Revis is out for the rest of the season with a torn ACL, but look for the Jets to be fired up and inspired by what the Vikings were able to accomplish hosting the 49ers.
Maybe the 49ers needed to come back to Earth after 2 weeks of SuperBowl champs, greatest-team-ever, best-team-in-the-league hype. Harbaugh will undoubtedly use this loss to try to get the team back to reality, focus on fixing their mistakes, and begin every game here on out with as much intensity and focus as weeks 1 and 2. In short, the 49ers aren’t used to being in this position on top of the league in the past decade, so they have to buy into the mindset that everyone is out to get them, or all of their incredible talent will just go to waste. Clean up the X’s and O’s, and I am confident that the team will bounce back.